Expert Commentary

Naval Warfare

December 20, 2015 | Dr. Thomas Mahnken

Thomas Mahnken is the Jerome E. Levy Chair of Economic Geography and National Security at the U.S. Naval War College and served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning, giving him a unique perspective into changes in naval warfare. He shared this insight, along with his expectations for the Navy’s future challenges, with The Cipher Brief. 

The Cipher Brief:  How has the use of naval power changed since the end of the Cold War?  What adjustments has the U.S. Navy undergone to adapt to these changes? 

Thomas Mahnken:  Surface ships, submarines, and naval aircraft represent large capital investments that are designed to see service for decades.  It should, therefore, not be surprising that many of the world’s navies, including the U.S. Navy, still bear the heavy imprint of the Cold War.  That is less true of rapidly modernizing navies, such as the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy, a large portion of which was launched after the end of the Cold War.

One major change relating to naval power that has become increasingly prominent since the end of the Cold War, is the growth and spread of so-called anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, which are aimed at blunting the ability of navies to operate close to shore and, increasingly, farther out to sea.  The spread of precision-guided munitions, sensors, and command and control capabilities has rendered aircraft (including naval aircraft) and surface ships increasingly vulnerable.  As a result, submarines are playing, and will continue to play, an increasingly prominent role in sea power.

The U.S. Navy is still addressing the tactical, operational, and strategic implications of its forces becoming increasingly vulnerable due to the increasing A2/AD capabilities among its adversaries.  It is exploring ways to defend against anti-access/area denial threats, as well as operational concepts to negate those threats.

TCB: What have been the most significant technological developments or innovations in naval power since the Cold War ended?

TM:  There are several.  One of the most prominent has been the growth of unmanned systems, both in the form of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), but also unmanned surface vehicles (USV) and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs).  In coming years, we will see unmanned systems performing a growing range of missions, such as reconnaissance and targeting.

Other innovations that may bear fruit are sea-based laser weapons for air and missile defense, and electromagnetic rail guns.  The former, if it proves to be feasible, could transform the balance between missiles and missile defense.  The latter could do so as well but also could magnify the ability of naval forces to strike targets ashore.

TCB: What external and internal factors (i.e. rising powers, budgetary shifts, new leadership, etc.) have driven these changes in technology and use of naval power?

TM:  Changes in the Navy have been driven both by internal and external factors.  The Navy has faced constrained budgets, first during the post-Cold War drawdown, then during the Bush Administration’s buildup to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now still in a period of budget cutbacks.  It has sought ways to field larger numbers of less-capable ships, such as the Littoral Combat Ship, as a way of maintaining fleet size in an era of austerity.

In recent years, foreign military developments have increasingly driven naval technology, particularly as China acquires a more capable military and as Russia has become more assertive.  Whereas the United States has been focused on waging counterinsurgency campaigns in the Middle East, China has been focused on increasing its maritime and air power.  Russia remains a world-leader in missile technology, including sea-launched cruise missiles, as Moscow’s recent employment of sea- and submarine-launched land-attack cruise missiles against targets in Syria demonstrates.

TCB: Many presidential candidates are concerned that the naval fleet has shrunk over the years and indicate the U.S. needs a larger navy, with at least one suggesting 600 ships. Is that a false premise since warfare and ship capabilities have changed dramatically?  You mentioned the Navy has purchased less capable ships because of budget constraints.  What are they lacking?

TM: Both quantity and quality matter in naval warfare, in the 21st century as in the past.  The size of the fleet matters, because demonstrating presence, deterring aggression, and reassuring allies are key naval missions and ships can only be in one place at a time. 

But quality also matters: presence, deterrence, and reassurance rest on the foundation of credible combat power.  Ships, like the Littoral Combat Ship, were designed to be relatively inexpensive, but this has come at the expense of credible combat power, and that ultimately undermines their effectiveness in deterring aggressors and reassuring allies.

TCB: How is the Navy working with the private sector to develop new technology to face future threats?

TM:  I imagine that as long as the Navy faces highly constrained budgets, it will be asking more of private industry in terms of developing new technologies. It is likely that the Defense Department overall will seek more ideas from industry but will also expect industry to put up more of the up-front costs in developing them.

TCB:  How do you see the role of the Navy changing?

TM:  The Navy has not fought a war at sea against a major adversary since 1945, and has not faced a capable competitor since the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War.  The character of war is changing, and China is rapidly becoming a capable competitor. Both have considerable implications for the Navy: what it buys, the concepts it develops, and how it educates and trains its sailors.   

All in all, the Navy faces an exciting and challenging period.

The Author is Thomas Mahnken

Dr. Thomas Mahnken is a Senior Research Professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and the Director of the Advanced Strategy Program at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies.  He is also the Jerome E. Levy Chair of Economic Geography and National Security at the U.S. Naval War College and a Commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve.  From 2006 to 2009, he served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning. 

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